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Mexico DF Dominates 

The wonderful food trumps everything else at Mexico DF

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007
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This is a list of the things I'm not nuts about at my new favorite restaurant: the noise level, with contributions from both the buzzing patrons and the insistent canned music; the décor, which feels overwrought, not organic, with too many ideas, too many colors, too many elements; the uneven service.

This is a list of the things I'm nuts about at my new favorite restaurant: every single dish eaten over three visits. My companions at the first two meals repeatedly exclaimed their pleasure. "I lucked out" was the contented summing-up from my friend after our particularly satisfying supper. And as I reflect on what we had, I have the same reaction, again and again: I feel hungry, my mouth waters, and I'm determined to repeat the experience.

I have a downtown lunch date with two friends, and we meet at Mexico DF. (The DF means Distrito Federal, denoting the capital, and is another name for Mexico City.) It occupies a space on Steuart, something of a restaurant row, in a brick building between the entrances to Shanghai 1930 and Ozumo. The façade features folding glass-and-metal doors that can be flung open to the street, permitting you to look into the com pact, square barroom, with a few small wood tables and chairs and an eight-seat bar. There's a tiny, intimate lounge tucked to one side, veiled by gauzy curtains.

Behind the bar, separated by an open shelving unit stacked with wine and spirits (largely tequilas, though not in as great a number as the 60 different kinds listed on the menu), is the main dining room. I'm led to the edge of a communal dining table that could seat a dozen in comfort. It's right in the middle of the room, at the end nearest to the open, white-tiled kitchen and its grill. There are plush orange-upholstered banquettes that ring the room. Every seat is filled, but I ask the host to reseat us if something opens up.

My pals arrive and we scan the lunch menu. There are half a dozen dishes listed under botanas y antojitos, including a classic guacamole and a seviche of the day; four different soft tacos; four platos fuertos, or main dishes, including a salad to which you can add grilled chicken or salmon; and five al lado, or side dishes, including two kinds of beans and arroz Mexicano. In addition to the information that "Most of our produce, meats, and fish are from sustainable producers," there is the impressive list of some of Mexico DF's suppliers: Primo Ranch, Anson Mills, The Peach Farm, Liberty Ducks, and Pacheco Goats.

Good news: A booth-like table has opened up against the far wall. It's much quieter there. While sipping the delicious watermelon juice that is the day's sole licuado, aka agua fresca, we decide to start by sharing a bowl of sopa de elote (corn soup), and then to continue on to pork tacos, the salad with grilled king salmon, chilaquiles topped with an optional fried egg, and a side of nopalitos.

It happens that our server brings everything at once. The main dishes don't really have a chance to cool off, because the creamy corn soup, traced with a squiggle of chipotle sauce, is so delicious that it disappears in a trice under our three-spooned assault.

And everything else is as stellar. The two plump chuleta tacos are overflowing with crumbled pork loin and anointed with lively chile de arbol salsa. Tender Little Gem lettuce leaves tremble under a creamy dressing laden with mild yet pungent cotija cheese, and the generous portion of coral-colored salmon is still rare at its heart. The chilaquiles, a dish of broken-up tortilla chips soaked in salsa roja, sautéed with chunks of chicken, dressed with rich, cool crema and dusted with cotija cheese, benefits from the golden yolk of the fried egg.

And the nopalitos, slivered, dark green, slightly bitter cactus and juicy golden chayote squash, cooked with diced tomato and queso fresco (bland, pale cheese), are swell.

We finish with two superb sweets: a wedge of flourless chocolate cake that's been amped up with chile powder (most noticeable in its aftertaste) and a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt, and a beautiful fresh Mission fig tart on a round of puff pastry, with a tangy side of goat cheese crema.

There's a reason aside from the food that Mexico DF is my new favorite restaurant: Five nights out of seven, it's open until 1 a.m. We take advantage of that fact, showing up after a play one night at 11 p.m. We're shown to a tiny deuce near the kitchen. While waiting for our food, I check off some of the wacky design elements: a strange sculptural three-paneled red-and-wood fixture slanting over the kitchen, studded with lights; another bizarre fixture over the central table, with two pierced metal plates bearing warty round light bulbs, and dozens of crystals hanging by threads; brightly colored chargers in a number of different motifs on every table; exposed brick; large sculptural artifacts behind gauze curtains. Strangest are the framed "paintings," reproductions of Latino artists on changing computer screens. Tonight Rufino Tamayo is featured.

But all is forgotten — and forgiven — with the arrival of the food. It's a much longer menu than at lunch, with four guacamoles, three seviches, three soups and salads, five tacos, six botanas and antojitos, four platos fuertes, and seven sides. We start by sharing an assortment of three different seviches, served with tortilla chips: firm slices of mahi mahi dressed with tiny minced cucumber, soy sauce, and tomato; chewy octopus and discs of ivory diver scallops, with slivered black olives and capers; and red diced ahi tuna, with juicy orange, suave avocado, and perky mint. They're all wildly different, fragrant with citrus, and quite delicious. I like best whichever one happens to be in my mouth.

We wanted to try the fresh corn tamales with huitlacoche, but the kitchen ran out, so we have duck flautas, four of them, shredded duck in crisply fried shells drenched in mild red sauce and squiggled with crema. They're lovely, but not as astonishing as our two mains: carnitas and goat tacos.

The carnitas are variously sized lumps of long-cooked, recently-fried pig; some chunks are laced with moist fat, others are drier and crunchy. They're utterly divine. Three salsas are served with them: a smoky chilaquiles, a milder green chile, and the salsa of the night, quite hot, featuring diced fresh pineapple. Some of the carnitas get plopped into freshly-made corn tortillas and anointed with salsa and pickled onion slices. Some just get popped into the mouth.

The juicy shredded goat tacos remind me just how much I love the slightly gamy meat, and how infrequently I get to eat it. Along with it, we enjoy a fabulous sauté of fresh corn with bright green, sweet, slivered Romano beans and purslane.

It's only later that I realize that nobody sampled one of the many, many margaritas and other drinks on offer. I return for a solitary cocktail at high noon: an exquisitely muddled fruit mojito, from an array of seven, with orange and mint. I take advantage of the taqueria-to-go, cash only, that's available at lunch, and walk away with a bag of three tacos overflowing with grilled steak. Outside, three would-be lunchers are studying the posted menu. "This looks good," one says, and I fervently agree. "And," I say in parting, "you must have the carnitas and the sautéed corn." Mexico DF

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Meredith Brody

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